Can Running Slow Aging Process
DEATH AND TAXES are known to be life’s only certainties.
But Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Ageing Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, has another: aging, which he calls the ‘inevitable consequence of living.
And the passing years have consequences beyond merely the number of candles on our cakes.
‘Ageing is associated with many declines in body structures and systems, from a loss of bone mineral density to sarcopenia [reduced muscle mass and strength] and reduced aerobic capacity,’ says Dr. Justus Ortega, professor of kinesiology at Humboldt State University, US.
The negative impact of Ageing doesn’t, please wait for our silver-haired years, either.
A glance at the timeline over which most age-related declines occur, and you may think that anyone is pushing 30 is sliding towards old age.
One study researched and published in the Journal of Applied Physiology reports a three to six percent drop in aerobic capacity per decade after 30, with this decline accelerating after 45.
Bone density peaks by 30, while muscle mass plummets by 10 percent per decade once we enter our fourth.
Lung capacity starts falling in the mid-30s and, according to research from the University of Virginia, some aspects of cognitive function decline from the tender age of 27. Oh, and flexibility and balance also deteriorate.
Bleak stuff, but those facts don’t tell the whole story.
Recent British studies published in the journals Aging Cell and Journal of Physiology compared cyclists aged 55-79 who’d been active most of their lives with sedentary age-matched peers and healthy but inactive young people.
The results showed the cyclists had avoided many of the declines associated with aging. Their thigh muscles didn’t show a marked deterioration in strength, the quality of their muscle fibers was well maintained, and their metabolic health was good.
They even had ‘youthful’ immune systems, with as many T cells as the younger subjects.
This is just one example of a growing body of research that shows many of the physical declines formally attributed to aging result from a sedentary lifestyle.
‘It could be said that it’s not so much that exercise slows down the aging process as that not exercising accelerates it,’ says Ortega.
The problem in the past, says Tanaka, is that researchers studying aging compared young, healthy adults with older, sedentary adults, who were considered ‘normal.’
The most recent UK Active Lives survey shows that while 69 percent of people aged 16-34 achieve the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, the figure drops to 66 percent in the 35-54-year-old age group and 60 percent in the over 55s.
‘It was only when we started studying older, physically active adults, such as Masters runners, that we found many of the age-related defects were either absent or attenuated,’ says Tanaka.
Tanaka’s research found that while average aerobic capacity maximum oxygen consumption during exercise, measured in milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight – VO, max among sedentary women aged 50-59 was
26.21111/kg/ min; in female runners of the same age, it was 42 .72 1111/kg/ min.
The runners had also evaded the weight gain so typical of aging, weighing, on average, 11kg less than their inactive peers.
‘Exercise can change the trajectory of aging,’ says Dr. Lyndon Joseph, an exercise physiologist at the National Institute on Aging in the US.
‘The physiologic systems take longer to decline, and the point at which reduces – and the diseases associated with aging – begin is pushed back.
Yes, you lose muscle strength and mass, but not as fast as someone who is sedentary.
Yes, you lose functional capacity, but it was higher in the first place, so you still end up better off.’
That helps explain why runners are 25-40 percent less likely to die prematurely than non-runners and why their typical lifespan is three years longer.
It also explains why, at 75, the late Ed Whitlock could run a 3:04:54 marathon while his contemporaries struggled to walk to the shop.
BODY OF EVIDENCE
How exercise helps defy aging varies, and one theory relates to the impact on DNA of physical activity.
DNA is found in every cell in the body, tightly packed within the cell nucleus in two long strands. Each strand has a protective ‘cap’ called a telomere on either end, but as we get older, these telomeres shorten and become too small to protect the DNA.
The DNA dies, causing the cell to degenerate. Research has suggested links between telomere length and various chronic conditions associated with aging, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and neurological disorders and cancers.
‘We know that, in general, people with shorter telomeres die sooner and are more
likely to develop chronic diseases,’ says Dr. Larry Tucker, professor of exercise sciences at Brigham Young University, US.
Regular RUNNING can keep the arteries YOUNG.
But studies suggest that physical activity helps to preserve telomere length. Tucker’s
research involving over 5,000 adults found that the most highly active subjects – those
who did the equivalent of30-40 minutes of running a day, five days a week – had
notably longer telomere lengths than the sedentary subjects.
The difference was equivalent to a biological age advantage of nine years. ‘Moderate exercise had some benefit, but it was those high levels of physical activity that made the difference,’ says Tucker.
Another study, conducted at King’s College London, found that among identical
twins – who share a DNA code – the most active of each pair had the longest telomeres,
proving that this is something we have the power to change.
Aging is typically associated with hardening and narrowing of the central
arteries, which carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the body’s working muscles.
This ‘arterial stiffness is a risk factor for cardiovascular and other diseases and hurts our general exercise capacity.
‘When the arteries stiffen, your heart has to work harder to push blood out,’ explains Tanaka.
‘Also, hardened arteries are not able to buffer the pulsatile [rhythmic pulsing]
stress that comes from the heart every time it beats, allowing it to be transmitted to
vital organs, causing damage.’
But here’s the good news: ‘Regular running can keep the arteries young,’ says Tanaka.
His research found that in Masters endurance athletes, the are associated stiffening of arteries was either absent or significantly less prevalent.
‘Regular aerobic exercise seems to prevent the constriction of the smooth muscle cells that line the arterial wall, making it stiffer and harder,’ he explains.
‘It also reduces sympathetic nervous system activation [the so-called ‘ fight or flight’ response], which constricts blood vessels and raises arterial pressure.’
Long-term aerobic exercise may have a beneficial effect on the structure of the
An effective cardiovascular system isn’t just about how much oxygen the heart can
transport around the body; it’s also about how efficiently that oxygen is used to
This is down to the mitochondria, the energy factories in our cel s. As people age, mitochondria become less efficient at generating energy, so overall ‘oxidative capacity’ drops.
But in runners, the changes that cause this decline don’t seem to happen.
‘Our studies have found that older runners’ muscles are as efficient at generating energy as younger people’s – and a lot more efficient than their age counterparts,’ says Ortega.
‘This mitochondrial efficiency is one of the reasons why the running economy does not
seem to decline in concert with age.’
It’s worth stressing that the walkers in Ortega’s study did not maintain their mitochondrial efficiency.
‘It is only a vigorous exercise that provides the necessary stimulus for mitochondrial change,’ he says.
Exercise intensity is also crucial when it comes to bone health. According to Wolff’s Law, bone responds to load by remodeling itself to become stronger and denser.
This process is controlled by cells called osteoclasts, which break down bone tissue and osteoblasts, forming new bone tissue.
The amount of load-bearing activity we expose our bones to in our younger years
plays a significant role in the peak bone mass we achieve.
Research shows that young runners have more significant bone -mineral density in their thigh bones than non-runners.
Running- a high-intensity load-bearing activity- stimulates bone strengthening in the shin bones more than cycling ( 11011- weight-bearing) or walking (low intensity).
WE BEGIN TO LOSE BONE DENSITY (and strength) from around the age of 30.
It’s a gradual process, although, in women, it speeds up to around menopause, when the
bone-protective effects of estrogen fade.
Can being active prevent this loss? The evidence is mixed. ‘It is more of a challenge to see the positive effects of exercise on bone in older people because the skeletal response to loading declines as we age,’ says Dr. Jinhu Xiong, from the center for musculoskeletal disease research at the University of Arkan.
A Cochrane review of the available evidence found that, on average, post-menopausal women who exercised had 0.85 percent less bone loss at the spine than those who didn’t exercise and 1.03 percent less at the hip.
French researchers looking specifically at the effect of running on bone density concluded that it had only a modest effect.
At the same time, a 2018 study in the Archives of Osteoporosis found hip-bone density in Masters sprinters was 14 percent higher versus age-matched controls but barely different in Masters endurance runners and non-active people.
‘The key point is that one has to be loaded, and the load has to be above a certain threshold,’ says Xiong.
‘High-intensity sprinting seems to be more effective than long-distance running because it puts a lot more load on bone.’
It’s a sound reason to include sprinting in your training regime, says Professor Jamie McPhee, one of the 2018 studies.
7 Ways TO RUN LONGER AND STRONGER
You’re already doing the most important thing to ensure you age well – running.
But these strategies will help you do that to the best of your ability and stay healthier.
1 STRENGTH TRAINING
‘Exercises should be slow and heavy,’ says Dr. Jessica Leitch.
‘Aim for 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps, 2-3 times a week.
Start with bodyweight and add load as you improve.
TRY Step-ups. Stand with your right foot on a step (shin to lower-knee height).
Push up through your right foot to straighten your knee and hip, driving your left knee up
and forward. Lower slowly to ensure you land ‘quietly
Professor Jamie McPhee favors weekly sprints to provide a strong stimulus to muscle fibers. Sprinting also helps to preserve bone density.
TRY 5×8-10-sec hill sprints with 90-120 secs’ recovery. Warm-up and use a hill
steep enough to pose a challenge but not so steep you can’t maintain form.
Add a sprint rep per week until you reach 10, then switch to flat sprints or a mix of both.
3 BALANCE WORK
Age-related changes to the visual and vestibular system, along with weaker muscles, can affect balance.
TRY: Stand on one leg, hands-on-hips. Hold for 30 secs. Swap sides. Progress by closing your eyes or standing on something soft, e.g., a cushion.
Include balance work in your warm-up or cooldown, or try it while brushing your teeth.
4 HIGH-INTENSITY TRAINING
Research at the Mayo Clinic, US, found 12 weeks of high-intensity interval training improved mitochondrial efficiency and insulin sensitivity in older people.
TRY: Study subjects did 4×4 minutes of hard effort, interspersed with 3 minutes’ easy recovery.
5 PROTEIN PUNCH
Protein is vital in minimizing muscle loss. ‘Just after a run is optimal,’ says McPhee. Vitamin C is also essential.
TRY: If you’re 50+, consume 35-40g of protein post-run and 1.4-1.6g per kg of body weight per day. Top up your vitamin C with fruit and veg.
6 STAY FLEXIBLE
Loss of flexibility is one of the causes of a shorter stride length as we age; taking joints through their full range of motion can help.
Stretch after a run, or try Pilates, yoga, or tai chi.
TRY: Hip flexor stretch. ‘This targets the quadriceps and hip flexor mobility,’ says Leitch.
Step forward with your left leg, bending the knee and resting your right knee on the floor, shoelaces facing down.
Raise your torso and curl your ta tailbone under; press your right hip forward, squeezing the glute. Hold for 30 secs—swap sides. Do 2-4 on each leg.
7 CROSS training
In Dr. Scott Trappe’s studies of older athletes, lifelong ‘purist’ runners experience the most orthopedic challenges. ‘Balance running with other cardiovascular activities,’ he recommends.
Trappe, 54, has switched from solely running to triathlon for this reason.
‘ I want to extend the number of years that I’ll be able to run,’ he says.
- Cardiovascular Ageing Research Laboratory Texas U.S
- Humboldt State University, US.
- Journal of Applied Physiology
- University of Virginia
- National Institute on Aging